Taipei mayor says Taiwan is 'just a product on a shelf' for US President Trump

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je said Taiwan needed to boost its worth to America by strengthening shared values, such as democracy and economic transparency. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - Taiwan must focus on making itself more valuable to President Donald Trump and accept its status as a pawn in the great power game between the United States and China, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je said.

The outspoken former surgeon and potential presidential contender told Bloomberg News that Taiwan should not overestimate the US' willingness to defend the island from an attack by its much bigger neighbour.

Mr Ko, 59, said Taiwan needed to boost its worth to America by strengthening shared values, such as democracy and economic transparency.

"Taiwan is just a product on a shelf," Mr Ko said on Wednesday (Oct 17) at Taipei City Hall. "We have to have a very clear understanding of ourselves."

Such blunt assessments have helped make Mr Ko one of Taiwan's most popular politicians since winning election as the capital city's mayor as an independent in 2014.

Should he secure a second term in local elections on Nov 24, he is considered a strong contender for president, something he repeatedly declined to rule out.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," said Mr Ko, who calls Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara "a hero" and other Taiwanese politicians "liars and fraudsters".

Mr Ko attributed his political success to offering an alternative to the two factions who have long dominated local politics: the Kuomintang (KMT), which sees itself as the rightful ruler of a unified China, and the Democratic Progressive Party, which sees Taiwan as an independent nation awaiting international recognition.

He has also shaken up city policies, suspending work on a 40,000-seat arena intended for last year's University Games.

"They support me because I am their only hope," he said. "I am not perfect, but they put their hope in me because they are desperate."

Mr Ko faces challenges from both sides during the Nov 24 election, in the form of former lawmakers Ting Shou-chung of the KMT and Mr Pasuya Yao of the DPP.

A survey by broadcaster TVBS last month found him leading Mr Ting by 5 percentage points and Mr Yao by 26 percentage points.

Mr Ko - a former ally of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen - has attempted to bridge the divide.

He outraged independence supporters when he told a Shanghai crowd during his first year in office that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belonged to one family - symbolism often evoked by unification advocates.

"The Taiwan issue is just a part of the tensions between the US and China," Mr Ko told Bloomberg.

Taiwan, which has been caught between the US and China since the KMT-led government fled to Taipei almost 70 years ago, has re-emerged as a geopolitical flash point amid Mr Trump's trade war.

The US has taken steps to improve political and military ties with Ms Tsai's administration in recent months, leading to protests from China.

Before becoming mayor, Mr Ko spent 17 years as the head of surgery at one of Taiwan's top hospitals.

His criticism of mainstream parities and sometimes profane outbursts in interviews have helped him amass a strong social media following, with 1.9 million Facebook followers. Ms Tsai has 2.2 million followers.

Next month's vote will show whether Mr Ko can translate his popularity among Taiwanese under 40 years old into votes.

He is touting openness and freedom as a source of strength for Taiwan, citing an annual gay pride march last year in Taipei that drew more than 100,000 people.

"These events represent an atmosphere of freedom," he said. "You have to go to other countries to realise Taipei is a place where there is diversity of thought."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.